Rural America loves Trump; too bad he doesn't love it


Sunday, November 13, 2016

In the lead up to Tuesday’s presidential election, there was a lot of talk about how a President-elect Hillary Clinton should, in one of her first official acts after winning the Nov. 8 election, tour white rural America. Clinton needed to talk honestly with those who hadn’t voted for her, this line of thought went, listening to their stories of how the modern economy has hollowed-out their communities, leaving them with few job opportunities beyond those offered at chicken processors, prisons and fast-food counters. Clinton would need to assure these small-town folk, this line of thought continued, that Washington, D.C. cares about them and wants to help restore the dignity they feel they’ve lost in recent decades.

Clinton may still end up taking that tour, but it won’t be as president-elect.

Donald Trump saw to that last Tuesday, defeating Clinton in the electoral college vote — largely because of the votes of those same white rural voters the commentators thought she would need to visit after the election. Indeed, Trump garnered the votes of 57 percent of small-town voters in Michigan, 63 percent in Wisconsin and 71 percent in Pennsylvania — margins Clinton couldn’t overcome by winning the majority of votes in the major cities in those states. Trump also won North Carolina, largely because he collected the votes of six in 10 white rural voters. Here in the five-county region, he won every county but Democratic-leaning Pasquotank — and only lost that one by fewer than 400 votes.

In exit polls, many rural voters who cast their ballots for Trump said they did so because they wanted change and thought he could deliver it. Many weren’t specific about the kind of change they wanted — but it almost certainly involves having someone in the White House who they believe feels like they do: that the country’s demographics and cultural norms are changing too quickly; that too many immigrants are here “stealing” jobs from Americans; that formerly strict rules on who can get married are gone and need to be reinstated; and that too much of Washington’s attention is focused on the problems of other communities, many of them home to African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims, and not enough on theirs.

Trump of course played on those fears throughout the long presidential campaign, starting with his pledge to deport all undocumented immigrants if he was elected. He also salved white rural voters about their economic challenges, telling them over and over that bad trade deals were the reason their towns were no longer home to steel mills, auto plants and textile mills. Trump claimed if he was elected, he would renegotiate every U.S. trade deal ever signed to ensure Americans’ interests come first. By so doing, he said he could force concessions from the deals’ other signatories that would return the jobs in steel, manufacturing, textiles and other industries that have fled the U.S. for cheaper labor markets overseas. “Be-lieve me,” he often said.

It’s easy to see why rural voters bought this hokum. First of all, many either don’t understand or chose to ignore the fact that trade deals aren’t the culprit for the loss of jobs overseas. Increasing automation and globalization are why those jobs that were once the path to the middle class are gone — and why they’re not ever coming back. Trump himself has surrendered to this reality in his own businesses, outsourcing the labor that produces his Trump brand-name clothing, eyeglasses and hotel toiletry products to nations like China, Bangladesh, Honduras, Vietnam and South Korea.

Secondly, rural voters are scared — and not just about their own economic future, but that of their kids and grandkids as well. If someone who appears to be successful comes along and says, “I can fix this thing that’s making your future so vulnerable,” you will probably believe him — particularly if you also agree with him about there being too many immigrants in the country and too much social and cultural change taking place. You are also likelier to overlook the serious character flaws in such a person — and vote to elect him president.

The real tragedy of rural Americans voting in such overwhelming numbers to put Donald Trump in the White House is that there will be no programmatic or legislative payoff for their votes. Despite aggressively stumping in their communities and promising things he can’t deliver, the fate of small-town Americans is not among Trump’s top priorities. The same is true for Republicans who will hold the majorities in both the House and Senate.

As evidence of this, Trump and congressional Republicans have vowed to make their first priority not a major infrastructure spending bill that could put many rural Americans to work. Instead, they’ve set their sights on repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, a measure that’s been good for rural Americans because it’s allowed many of them, thanks to taxpayer-backed subsidies, to finally be able to purchase affordable health care insurance. 

Trump and congressional Republicans also have no interest in passing an increase in the minimum wage or making college costs more affordable — two things that also could greatly improve rural Americans’ lives. Expect them to instead focus on bigger tax cuts for the wealthy and on rolling back banking and other regulations adopted after the financial collapse that will make corporate America’s life easier.

We’d like to think that it wouldn’t take long for rural America to realize it’s been hoodwinked and demand that their champion turn his focus to them. But then, Trump has already taken the measure of those who support him the most fervently. He famously once said during the campaign that he “could shoot somebody and would not lose voters.” Right now, we’re not so sure the same won’t happen when Trump gets in the White House and begins pursuing his real passion: furthering the  interests of Donald Trump.